A new study from a leading Canadian researcher suggests the largest sources of methane emissions from oil and gas sites are not the pieces of equipment commonly assumed as main culprits. The research, which relied on laser technology mounted on a plane that flew over oil and gas sites in British Columbia in 2019, suggests methane emissions are 1.6 to 2.2 times higher than current federal estimates.
Airborne LiDAR measurements, parallel controlled releases, and on-site optical gas imaging (OGI) survey and pneumatic device count data from 1 year prior, were combined to derive a new measurement-based methane inventory for oil and gas facilities in British Columbia, Canada. Results reveal a surprising distinction in the higher magnitudes, different types, and smaller number of sources seen by the plane versus OGI. Combined data suggest methane emissions are 1.6–2.2 times current federal inventory estimates. More importantly, analysis of high-resolution geo-located aerial imagery, facility schematics, and equipment counts allowed attribution to major source types revealing key drivers of this difference. More than half of emissions were attributed to three main sources: tanks (24%), reciprocating compressors (15%), and unlit flares (13%). These are the sources driving upstream oil and gas methane emissions, and specifically, where emerging regulations must focus to achieve meaningful reductions. Pneumatics accounted for 20%, but this contribution is lower than recent Canadian and U.S. inventory estimates, possibly reflecting a growing shift toward more low- and zero-emitting devices. The stark difference in the aerial and OGI results indicates key gaps in current inventories and suggests that policy and regulations relying on OGI surveys alone may risk missing a significant portion of emissions.